How to celebrate birthdays at a safe distance

Recognizing our loved ones’ birthdays as well as our own special day is an important social ritual, and an act of love. Whether it’s a balloon-filled party for children or a dinner out with adult friends, birthdays remind us to celebrate life, and each other.

This is poignant now, more than ever.

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) upends our lives and communities, we need to stay connected to each other and mark important events as best we can. Although the stay-at-home and physical distancing orders essential to stopping the spread of the coronavirus make it impossible to physically gather, there are still meaningful ways to recognize birthdays and other occasions in our lives.

Adapting a party for the times

Early this year, Keri Kinabo had planned an April birthday party for her son Akii that was going to be “epic.” The guest list included not only her son Akii’s friends from his soccer team, but also adult friends. “It was going to be a backyard barbecue,” Keri said.

Then came the COVID-19 crisis. Suddenly, gathering friends together at their Portland, Oregon, home for Akii’s eighth birthday was fraught with danger.

Keri had an idea: a drive-by birthday celebration. “I contacted the parents of his soccer teammates and told them to drive by our house and honk the horn the afternoon of Akii’s birthday,” she said.

Keri knows Akii will be outside kicking the soccer ball when friends drive by. He doesn’t know about Keri’s plan, and she’s looking forward to his reaction. Some people plan to decorate their cars, and there will be plenty of “happy birthday” shouts from rolled-down windows to make sure Akii feels loved and celebrated.

It may not be the backyard barbecue party with friends gathered around, but Akii will be celebrated by people who love him. And that’s what’s most important.

More ways to celebrate birthdays

In addition to a good “old-fashion” phone call or card, which still have merit, there are other creative ways to adapt a birthday celebration for the times. Like Keri, you can organize a drive-by party for a friend or family member and encourage “guests” to decorate their cars or sing happy birthday. But a car isn’t essential to a party. Here are other ways to create special occasions – at a safe distance.

  • Organize a walk-by party in front of the birthday person’s home or apartment (ensuring walkers maintain a 6-foot distance between them) over a specified span of time. Encourage walkers to carry signs and use noise makers to show their love.
  • If you live in a walkable neighborhood and are celebrating a birthday in your household, ask your neighbors to put signs with birthday messages or decorations in their windows, then take your loved one on a walk past each home. 
  • Use one of the video conferencing programs, such as Zoom, to organize a virtual birthday party. Suggest everyone wear party hats or garb, and BYOC (bring your own cake). Incorporate singing the birthday song or other celebratory songs.
  • Hire a musician or band to perform live online for your loved one’s birthday.
  • For a kid’s birthday, hire a magician, clown or storyteller to perform online.

Remember, it’s about the love

Just as Keri had to adjust her plans and Akii’s expectations for his birthday, assume that you may have to do the same in the months ahead. The important thing is that you maintain some of the rituals that help keep you connected to life before COVID-19 and each other. Whether a family event, a birthday celebration or holiday, it doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. Sometimes the simplest gestures are the ones that make the most meaningful memories.


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